My Turn Now: Customs Nightmare

By Shahid Athar, MD*

Just because a person is a good driver, does not mean that he will never have an auto accident in his life. In the same way, just because an American Muslim who has been vocal in opposing and denouncing terrorism and promoting peace and interfaith throughout his adult life, has no guarantee he will be treated any differently than any other American Muslim.

Just because I have never been profiled or given any hard times at any US airport or border by customs or immigration office, either before or after 9/11 does not guarantee that it will never happen to me ever. Since I do travel a lot, both in the United States as well as outside, the only incident I recall was in July 2001 when I was returning from a medical conference in Iran. I was at London (Heathrow Airport). They asked me what I was doing in Iran and I showed them the CME program from the conference and told them my medical lectures that I gave there which satisfied them. Similarly, two year before that, at Casablanca Airport in Morocco, a lady looked at me (and at that time I had a full beard) and asked me if I was Iranian. I smiled and told her to look at my passport again which is a US passport and the Country of birth is India. I asked her “how could I be Iranian?” and she told me that my beard was like an Iranian.

After the tragedy of 9/11, I have spoken and written about the need for interfaith harmony, peace and denounced terrorism. Many of my writings and speeches were published in book (Healing the Wounds of sept.11, 2001, by Authorhouse) in 2002. Many politicians, Senators, Congressmen and other dignitaries including the director of FBI and Homeland Security, who had received my book, sent me letters of appreciation. Several months ago, an FBI special agent in Indianapolis, called me and wanted to meet me so I invited him to my office and subsequently we had a very fruitful conversation for more than an hour with subsequent follow up social meetings. He had read all about my writings on different web sites, was impressed and wanted my help in developing a community relationship with the FBI so that the current apprehensions and misconceptions about FBI operations in the Muslim community could be diminished. Therefore, I invited him to our mosque as well as several community organizations. Not only he, his boss and several other associates came each time and made presentations, but they also had a booth at one of the conventions. I gave over to 100 presentations in 2 years after 9/11 to different institutions, Churches and organizations about Islam, Muslims and interfaith. In appreciation and recognition of such interfaith activities, The Indianapolis Medical Society, in 2003, awarded me the Governor Otis Bowen Community Service Award of the 1200 Physician membership in the City of Indianapolis.

Unfortunately, for Muslim Physicians, things changed after the July 1st, 2007 alleged terrorism by a certain physician at Glasgow Airport. Then there was a fear that terrorists trained as Physicians can slip into to the United States. On July 3, I was contacted by Kirk Fernandez from ABC news to give an interview about this situation. This was published on ABC by Russell Gorman on July 4th. In this report, I as the past president of The Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA) was quoted as saying “Muslim doctors are on the whole are dedicated to saving life, not destroying it like those who are suspected in the British plot. Physicians know about the sanctity of human life and are programmed to save life, not destroy it. This is true of all physicians in general and Muslim Physicians in particular.” My survey conducted after 9/11 and published in which I found no indication of American patients were any more fearful or less trustful of their Muslim doctors and there was no back lash done against them nor did I expect it after the Glasgow incident.”

In spite of my very outspoken presence in the media on many websites, I was conscious that someday I would be stopped and profiled. This did happen on July 22nd 2007. The IMANA 40th Annual Convention had just ended in Niagara Falls, Canada. When we were going from the Buffalo Airport to Canada there was no problem. It went very smoothly and was arranged by our travel company. The convention went very well. I gave two presentations on the recent developments in diabetes. The convention was also addressed by Dr. Scott Santibafiez from CDC about possible pan endemic flu and what religious organizations should do to educate their community.

Before the convention on July 3rd, IMANA had made a press release denouncing the UK terror plot and condemning the act of terrorism and mentioned that Muslim Physicians try to promote and maintain health and prevent diseases and condemn all acts of terrorism as we uphold the sanctity of human life. On July 13th, in the United States Senate, Senator Durbin and Senator Hagel introduced a resolution, praising American Muslim Physicians who condemned terrorist acts and recognized the efforts of American Muslim Physicians through the Islamic Medical Association of North America which publicly condemned in the strongest term, the alleged attacks at Glasgow Airport in London. The Senate resolution commended IMANA for swift and clear public denunciation of the attack and encourages Muslim voices in the United States and abroad to continue speaking against terrorism and condemn bigotry and acts of violence against any Americans including Arab Americans and Arab Muslims. This resolution was presented to the delegates of the convention at Niagara Falls by the President of IMANA, Professor Hassan and a copy was made available to all of the delegates for their files.

On Sunday, July 22nd, it was time to leave the convention and return to the USA. I took the 10am bus instead of the scheduled 11:30am bus to avoid delays at the border crossing as my flight was at 3:30pm. There were 9 other passengers in this particular bus, including my wife and 3 other past Presidents of IMANA. At the border, the first agent stopped the bus, took our passports and after 10 minutes my name was called and they asked me to get off the bus and come inside the immigration and customs office, door #2. After 15 minutes they asked my wife to get out also and take our luggage and they let the bus go without us to the airport. For the next 3 hours, we waited in the waiting area of the immigration and customs office without knowing what was happening.

It looked like there were several agents were working on our case but they were not able to tell me what the reason for stopping us was. One of the agents asked me to fill out a customs declaration form which I did. Another agent asked me to see my driver’s license. While I was taking it out of my wallet, he wanted to examine all of the contents of my wallet which I think was very objectionable but I did not object to it because if I said no it would mean that I was hiding something. While he was looking through the contents of my wallet, he found my membership card for the Indianapolis Medical Society, my physician’s license, my membership in ACLU and Amnesty International but he also found the business cards of those 3 FBI agents whom I had befriended and they had given me their cards. He asked why I was carrying the FBI agents’ cards and I told him that they were my friends and I was helping them to improve the relationship with the Muslim community in Indiana at their request. I told him that I had invited them to come to our Mosque and our local political Muslim convention which they did and made a presentation on behalf of their agency. I suggested to the Homeland Security agent that they contact any of these FBI agents and ask about me.

In the meantime, I had informed by my cell phone Dr.Khalid Qazi, the chair of the local host committee of the IMANA convention, who had been in touch with Homeland Security. After 3pm which is about 4 _ hours after the initial time, they wanted to check my luggage which they did very quickly, just like airport checking. This time I asked what was going on and I was told they were waiting for a phone call and it had not arrived yet.

At 3:30pm, I was taken inside for an interview with a special Homeland Security agent, Jim Crawford who was brought in from his home. Apparently, it took him close to 4 hours at his home to read my writings on the internet. He was very professional and cordial with me. He knew about my books on Islam, interfaith and medical ethics and he knew that several Senators, including Senator Lugar and Senator Biden, several governors as well as President Bush and the director of Homeland Security as well as the director of the FBI had written nice letters to me about my writings. He had spoken at length about me to the special FBI agent whose card was found in my wallet He asked me a few questions about my interfaith activities and I told him that I am the past President of Interfaith Alliance and have been working with Islamic/Catholic dialogue as well as made several presentations to synagogues about Jewish/Muslim relationships.

He asked me to name 5 organizations that I am a member of and knowing that I am a member of many organizations. I named Islamic Medical Association of North American, American College of Physicians, American Association of Clinical Endocrinologist, Interfaith Alliance of Indiana and a Muslim Organization. He told me that he was aware that I have no control of websites that use my writings for any particular purpose. I also gave him a copy of IMANA’s resolution about the U.K. terrorist plot as well as the United States Senate resolution praising Muslim Physicians and the IMANA resolution.

After 15 minutes of a fairly cordial interview, he expressed his regrets, thanked me, gave me his card and let me go. Another agent later on brought 2 bottles of water for my wife and me and called a taxi for the airport.

We arrived at the airport by 4:15pm but by that time the scheduled Northwest flight had already left at 3:15 and the next flight had no available seats. Finally, we begged another airline to give us seats and we got seats for a 7pm flight but that plane broke down on the runway.

That airline put us in the Holiday Inn where we spent the night and came to Indianapolis the next morning. A half day of my hospital rounds was lost and caused inconvenience to my office, my partner and patients. In spite of that, I sent an email of thanks both to the Homeland Security agent and the FBI agent in appreciation for their efforts to keep our borders safe and protecting the lives of Americans with copy to Senator Lugar. I did get a response back from the FBI agent thanking me for the letter and asking me how I was treated at the border security.

The purpose of my writing this report is to make fellow American Muslims know that we are being watched and monitored and we should be prepared. We should not only continue to condemn terrorism verbally but also in writing for the sake of record and we must keep good relationships with fellow non-Muslims as well as government agencies because in this fight against terrorism, we are all together. During my speeches and Friday sermons, I tell my audience that immigrant Muslims should bring their hearts where their body is now. Home is not where your grandparents are buried but where your grandchildren play.

The United States is a great place to be and we have been placed here not by other actions, but by the will of God. We must keep it safe and beautiful and uphold the religious harmony. All of the concerns of society, whether it is pollution, potholes in the streets or terrorism, are everyone’s concern and we must do our best to take care of these problems.

Yes, we may be discriminated and profiled because of our looks, our faith, our country of origin, against the Bill of Rights in the 3rd amendment, but this is a society in which immigrants have been profiled for the last 300 years.

First it was Jewish people, then Catholics and African Americans and now it is our turn. We must learn from the experiences of others how they survived. We are a part of permanent American landscape.

The sad part of this whole saga is the realization that while American media and columnists complain that moderate American Muslims don’t speak up against terrorism but they themselves treat those who do with same degree of suspicion as those who don’t. They believe all Muslims are terrorists unless proven otherwise. Thus it is up to us to prove “the otherwise” and try to satisfy those who question our loyalty to America.

Dr. Shahid Athar is a practicing physician in Indianapolis and an Islamic speaker an author. He can be reached via his email , webpage


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